SANTA BARBARA — A freighter loaded with potentially dangerous pollutants sank in 3,000 feet of ocean water Monday, 11 hours after it collided with a car-carrying ship in dense fog about 15 miles off Point Conception.
The Coast Guard said no one was injured in the mishap and the crew of the 564-foot Liberian ulk carrier Pac Baroness was taken aboard the other ship within minutes.
But environmentalists said the sunken vessel's cargo, which included 23,000 tons of powdered copper, iron and sulfur concentrates--and the 386,000 gallons of bunker fuel also on board--could seriously threaten fish and other marine life in the vicinity, about 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Philip Oshida, an oceanographer for the federal Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, said the cargo could cause "significant" problems if released into the ocean. The powdered copper in particular, he said, "can be toxic in a marine environment."
Coast Guard spokesman Charles Embleton said the cause of the collision was not immediately known, and added that the location of the sinking--a spot rich in marine life where the ocean botto1830843244fathoms--would make any effort at salvage impractical.
"Even hard-hat divers can't go that deep," he said, "so there's no real hope of getting the cargo or the oil out of her."
He said the 494-foot, car-carrying freighter Atlantic Wing, registered in Panama, had a cargo of 3,451 Honda cars and was en route to the Port of Long Beach for fuel when its bow crashed into the side of the Pac Baroness in thick fog.
The hull of the Pac Baroness was gashed open below the waterline. She began to list, and her crew of 25 was immediately taken on board the Atlantic Wing, which sustained bow damage above the waterline and did not appear to be in any danger.
A Coast Guard airman was lowered to the deck of the Pac Baroness from a helicopter. He sealed the hatches above the waterline in an effort to create an air pocket below decks that could keep the vessel afloat.
Later in the day, a ship's officer and two engineers volunteered to re-board the ship in an effort to restart bilge pumps, and an oceangoing tug arrived to move the helpless vessel out of the heavily traveled seaway.
Embleton said it had originally been hoped that the Japan-bound Pac Baroness might be saved, but later in the afternoon her stern was under water, and the three men still aboard were taken back to the Atlantic Wing.
Pac Baroness finally slipped beneath the surface at at 4:50 p.m.
The Atlantic Wing continued on her course toward Long Beach, and the crew of the Pac Baroness was transferred to another ship which would take them to Port Hueneme.
Kenneth Lewis, president of Northeast Pacific Shipping Co. in Portland, Ore., which operated the Pac Baroness, said the loss of the ship was not his primary concern. "What's significant," he said, "is that no crew member on either vessel was injured or killed."
Coast Guard spokesman Charles Crosbey said it is unlikely that the Coast Guard will investigate the matter, since it occurred in international waters, but added that the owners of the two ships could be legally liable for damage resulting from the collision.
A minor oil slick was reported in the vicinity of the Pac Baroness while she was still afloat, but Coast Guard authorities said that was probably from the ship's bilges, which were being pumped.
After the sinking, however, another slick was spotted in the vicinity. Fishermen reported it shortly before sunset, and Coast Guard officers said it might be from the fuel tanks of the sunken vessel.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., said it was an ominous sign.
The sinking, he said, occurred in a very rich fishing area, and, "depending on where the currents are, it could be a real problem. I'm very concerned about contamination."
Grader said there was already some pollution in the area, but the oil--or the copper--could create a serious hazard.
"The best thing for us," he said, "is if it leaks slowly. If it all spills out at once, it could ruin the area for fishing for quite a while.
"If there were any fish in the egg or larval stages, it could destroy them because they are not resistant to that kind of thing. It could also be ingested by fish and picked up in their flesh, and while this might not kill them, it could make them unmarketable.
"Shellfish, especially, could be heavily impacted. They don't move as much as the other fish. Then, too, a large oil slick would stop trawling in the area, because you get oil in your gear. . . . "
The accident seemed likely to refuel the debate over oil and gas development off the Santa Barbara coast. Environmentalists have long warned that a collision or other accident at sea could result in a disastrous oil spill.
And for that reason Santa Barbara County has insisted that crude oil be transported by pipeline. Indeed, a final environmental impact report released last month for the proposed $225-million Angeles Pipeline Project, which would carry 330,000 barrels of crude daily to Los Angeles basin refineries, concluded that the pipeline was the "safer and environmentally preferred" transport method.
If the crude were shipped to Los Angeles by ship or train, the report said, there could be 10 oil spills at sea totaling 88,550 barrels, with large single spills exceeding 20,000 barrels during a 50-year period.
Such spills could affect 10 estuaries, 14 areas of special biological significance, threaten four endangered species on land, and another 13 endangered species at sea, the report said. Shipment of the crude by rail could result in the spillage of between 22,950 to 31,400 barrels over 50 years, the report said.
Times staff writer Larry B. Stammer also contributed to this story.